In Auschwitz, Turkey minister accuses EU of ‘racism’

Egemen Bagis.jpg

The EU risks being besieged by a racist mentality "that emulates the fascist methods of the 1930s," said Turkish EU Affairs Minister Egemen Ba???, speaking at a Holocaust commemoration event in Auschwitz.

Speaking on Tuesday (1 February), Ba??? said that the only remedy for what he called Europe's "distorted mentality" was Turkey's accession to the EU.

"The EU, founded in order to eliminate the threats of that period to peace, is today under the risk of being overtaken by a racist mentality that cannot internalise its own values and emulates the fascist methods of 1930s," Ba??? stated in a speech, according to an official transcript released by his services.

"Unfortunately today Turkey and the Turkish people in Europe bear the consequences of being different […] Turkish people, implicitly or openly, are being told this: 'You are different and you have no place among us'."

"Those who have racist and distorted mentalities have no right to degrade democracy and the philosophy of the European Union," he went on.

"The best response to these people would be to support and adopt the values of the European Union and principles of democracy more. The only remedy for this distorted mentality is Turkey's accession to the EU," Ba??? concluded.

Talks at a dead-end

The strong-worded message comes as Turkey's EU accession talks stand practically frozen as a result of Ankara's unwillingness to open its ports and airports to vessels and aircrafts from EU member Cyprus.

Moreover, Turkey appears to be drifting away from the perspective of achieving visa-free travel for its citizens in the EU's borderless Schengen area. Recently, Turkey has been building its own visa-free area by establishing a visa-free regime with countries such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. In the context of the domino nature revolutions in the Mediterranean, immigration pressure of people across the region coming via Turkey into the EU is likely to increase, experts say.

EURACTIV asked various Turkish interlocutors to react to the European affairs minister's statements. The only answer received so far is from Kader Sevinç, the representative to the EU of the country's largest opposition party, CHP.

Sevinç labelled the statement by Ba??? "superficial". She recognised that the credibility of European democracy in the world was to some extent being undermined by increased xenophobia and extremist political positions in some EU member states.

"However, we should not generalise these destructive trends in European politics. We are confident that Europe will overcome the present difficulties and prove once more the universal value of its democracy. This is why a majority of the member states and wide political circles in each EU member country support Turkish membership on the basis of rational arguments. The world needs Europe's democratic leadership," Sevinç stated.

EURACTIV also asked the European Commission to comment. The EU executive said it would first need to check that the quotes by Ba??? were correct.

Other options for Ankara?

Speaking to EURACTIV earlier in an interview, Ba??? said that EU membership was a "very important anchor" for Turkey, but added that it was not Ankara's only option. 

Turkish high representatives argue that their country has a lot to offer the EU and would in fact relieve the Union of some of its burdens, instead of bringing additional ones.

Among the advantages that Turkey could bring to Western Europe, they mention the demographic factor but also the country's healthy economic growth.

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Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle has spoken on the phone with Minister Ba??? late on 2 February, Füle’s spokesperson Natasha Butler told the Brussels press on Thursday (3 February).

She said that Ba??? told the Commissioner that his statement was intended to explain his country’s concern from the rise of some extremist groups in the EU. Ba??? also reportedly said that such a rise would contribute to the lessening of tolerance toward minorities in the EU, adding that he saw this as against EU’s fundamental principles.

“The Commissioner was grateful for this clarification,” Butler added.

Asked by EURACTIV if the Commission didn’t find these statements misplaced even after the explanations, she said:

“Clearly, the original words could have been better chosen, and could have avoided any potential misunderstanding. All more important, given the timing and the location of their pronouncement.  It was for this reason that Commissioner Füle took immediate contact with Minister Ba???, as he became aware of this speech,” she concluded.

Asked by EURACTIV Turkey to comment Ba???’s statements, Prof. Ayhan Kaya of Bilgi University provided the following comment:

“As Mr. Egemen Bagis said in his speech, seeking similarities between the Europe of 1930s and the Europe of today could mislead us.

‘It is quite possible, or it is accurate, to say that in today’s Europe, governments rather emphasize Christian, cultural, nationalist and exclusionary values.

‘However, by referring to dominant racist, anti-Semitist and fascist elements of the 1930s and claiming that today’s Europe is equally racist and fascist is an approach way overboard.

‘We see that concentration camps, gas chambers, systematic massacres and political inattention and cleansing of different human races in the Europe of 1930s do not occur today.

‘It could be said, at the most, that a kind of cultural racism with the exclusion of different cultures are taking place. And it is rather because of religious and cultural elements of the world.

‘In other words, the real issue is conservative governments in Europe prefer to focus on Christian values as they read the world. A similar situation takes place in Turkey, does it not? That is to say, reading the world through religious references.

‘I am of the opinion that religious references have been ruling the world in economic and political crisis since the 1970s in particular and understanding of neo-liberal administration building societies based on charity not a state of prosperity plays a role in this. If Mr. Bagis tried to imply all this, it is possible to say that he is right. But if he tried to seek similarities between two historic periods, he is not…

‘Besides, as I said, let’s not forget that the European Union community discussing new cultural racism dominating today is not homogenous. For instance, it is German public opinion, President of Germany and German Social Democrat Party reacting against the so-called “scientific” racist book by Thilo Sarrrazin today.

‘Yes, it is true that the EU suffering a crisis. Yes, it is true that Europe is in crisis.

A similar crisis occurred in the 1970s and Europe manages to get over it in a short time, to a certain degree though. And today it is going through a similar crisis.

‘History proceeds in a dialectic manner and Europe will overcome this crisis, too.

What is important for Turkey is to help the West while getting over this crisis and to adopt peaceful, harmonious and integrative discourse,” Prof. Kaya concluded.

Bahadir Kaleagasi, international coordinator at TÜS?AD, the organisation representing Turkish business, told EURACTIV, insisted that in Turkey, Europe has always been perceived as the cradle of the democracy. But he appeared to relate the ‘racism’ remarks to “mainstream” European politicians, not to extremists:

“This is why the disappointment is deep when we observe how some mainstream EU politicians might be irrationally turco-phobic. Nevertheless, it is better to avoid stereotypes for both the EU and the Turkish politicians. The Europeans in all EU countries as well as in Turkey are in great majority firm believers in democracy as a fundamental European value.

“The last events in the Middle East prove how important is the responsibility of the European political leaders to emphasize and promote the democracy and human rights. All over the world, progressive democratic movements turn to Europe as source of inspiration.

“This is up to the European politicians, including those in Ankara, to upgrade Europe’s democratic credibility in the World. They may all start first at home and offer better models of democratic governance and policies,” Kaleagasi concluded.

Since EU-Turkey accession talks began in October 2005, 13 of the 35 negotiating chapters have been opened, and only one has been provisionally closed.

Eighteen chapters are frozen due to vetoes by Cyprus, France or the European Council as a whole, with only three chapters remaining on the table – competition policy, social policy and employment, and public procurement.

The reform drive has also been waning in Turkey as a result of the increasingly critical stance of key players like France and Germany.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is staunchly opposed to Turkey's EU membership and is said to consider the decision by his predecessor Jacques Chirac to grant agreement for opening accession negotiations with Ankara as a major mistake.

For her part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently lamented the poor integration of immigrant workers in her country, the majority of whom are of Turkish origin, saying that Germany's attempt to create a multicultural society had "utterly failed".

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